Spotting fake news: A simple guide

Spotting fake news: A simple guide

98035653_MFake news has been around for some time, but it’s been brought to light recently in the context of the 2016 presidential election. But the reality is that — to some extent — misinformation has been around since the beginning.

Social media is perhaps the most egregious venue today, since it has the ability to transmit and amplify information quicker than when we could share information only person to person. This makes it even more important to be vigilant when consuming information online so we can avoid falling prey to false or misleading information and perpetuating it.

Here’s how to do you due diligence:

Check the source.
What is the URL? Some fake news sites will try to spoof credible ones, using a similar URL and logo. For example, ABC News could appears as with a similar logo, to trick people into engaging. Also, look at the website’s “Contact” and “About Us” pages. If there’s no editorial contact or the description of their purpose and mission is vague or missing altogether, that could be a sign that the site lacks legitimacy.

When in doubt, do a quick Google search of the website. Is there a history of bad press about the source? Some sites have been outed as venues for foreign governments to intervene in our elections.

Dive deeper.
Sometimes bad actors will use outrageous headlines to grab attention and drive traffic.. Before sharing any piece of content, read the piece in its entirety. Does the article have a byline? If so, does the author have a track record of content? Did the writer interview reputable sources and include direct quotes and links to supporting information? Is the writing clean or is it chock full of errors? All of this matters, because legitimate journalists conduct themselves in a legitimate manner, while trolls aren’t concerned with following journalistic standards and practices.

Look at the big picture.
If you’re on the fence about the credibility of a source, do some research. Are other outlets reporting on the same matter? Do you see recurring themes as far as the facts being reported? People or organizations with malicious intentions will create their own narrative and it’s usually not supported by other accounts.

In short, the Era of Fake News requires critical thinking. Everyone could stand to be more cautious about their approach to media consumption. How do you ensure you’re not engaging in fake news? Share your tips on our Facebook Page.

Back to school: A primer on First Amendment rights in the classroom

Back to school: A primer on First Amendment rights in the classroom

38312007 - cute pupils running down the hall at the elementary schoolThe First Amendment applies to many areas of civilian life, including our educational systems. For example, the courts have recognized that students are guaranteed rights prescribed by the First Amendment.

However, it wasn’t always this way. As our country evolved so did its laws. When adopted in 1791, the First Amendment applied only to Congress and the federal government. So when the public school system was formalized in the 19th century, students could not make First Amendment claims.

This censorship lasted into the 20th century. In fact, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that school officials could take punitive action against two students who had an unflattering poem published in the local newspaper. Why was this permitted? According to the court, “such power is essential to the preservation of order, decency, decorum, and good government in the public schools.” What followed was a dangerous precedent. For example, In 1915, the California Court of Appeals ruled that school officials could suspend a student for challenging the administration.

The 1940s brought some fresh air with the flag-salute case of West Virginia v. Barnette. It was then that the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly extended First Amendment protection to students attending public schools. The Barnette case was rooted in religious freedom. Several students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the flag because their faith discourages them from showing allegiance to any worldly government.

School officials chastised the students and their parents. The students then sued, claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights. This time, the court ruled in the students’ favor, holding that the free speech and free exercise of religion provisions of the First Amendment guarantee the right of students to be excused from this exercise on the account of religious beliefs.

There are more recent cases of violations of free speech in a school setting. Earlier this month, the ACLU sued the Smith County School System in Tennessee because according to the organization, “school officials regularly incorporate prayer into school events and preach to students in violation of the separation of church and state.”

Public schools should be vehicles for education, not religious indoctrination. That’s why we continue to fight for First Amendment rights in and outside the classroom. Will you join us?

3 little-known obstacles to students’ voting rights in the U.S.

3 little-known obstacles to students’ voting rights in the U.S.

38646453_MThere is a long history of voter suppression for various groups in the United States, with the most common examples being African Americans and women. Although these groups have since obtained the right to vote through the 15th and 19th Amendments respectively, there still exist barriers to voting for other groups, such as convicted felons, mentally disabled individuals, elderly folks without the means to obtain new ID cards and/or go to the polls, and even college students.

As the Pacific Standard argued in a December 2018 article, access to voting is one of the most important issues related to freedom of speech in a democratic society, yet we rarely discuss possible strategies for removing barriers to voting access. In regards to college students specifically, what’s preventing them from voting? Let’s unpack this little-known issue further:

Lack of Poll Accessibility

As the New York Times reported in October 2019, more and more states and municipalities are imposing restrictions on college students’ access to polls. For example, the Texas Legislature recently outlawed polling locations that don’t stay open for the entirety of the early voting period (12 days), which effectively banned on-campus polls that could only operate for some of that voting period due to funding and other resource scarcity.

Other restrictions that currently hinder the accessibility to voting rights for college students include poll parking requirements (some states – like Florida – have required polling locations to have a set number of non-permit parking spaces available) and limited/no access to early voting options.

It’s incredibly important for polls to have a presence on college campuses because students with limited access to transportation are already on campus for their classes, which presents a timely opportunity to cast their vote. Although the misconception that young people don’t vote continues to persist – despite youth turnout in 2018 being the highest it’s ever been in 25 years – college students nevertheless deserve access to polls, just like any other American citizen.

Complicated Residency Issues

For out-of-state college students, residency is difficult to establish for both financial aid and voting. Some states prohibit the use of out-of-state driver’s licenses as valid forms of ID for voting, while other states forbid the use of student ID cards as valid forms of ID for voting purposes. This means that out-of-state students may be unable to vote in the place they currently live and they’re physically unable to go home and vote in their hometowns.

Valid Voter ID Requirements

Speaking of voter ID requirements, obtaining a new ID card can be a logistical and financial challenge for many college students, regardless of their state of residency. If they don’t have a valid driver’s license from the state they attend college in, they may have to fork over more money to obtain a new form of identification just to ensure access to the polls.

For some students however, this process is too inconvenient, too costly and too time-consuming, so they end up not voting at all.

In the U.S., we should not prevent citizens from voting simply because they do not have the means to get to the polls and/or the financial means to obtain a valid form of ID. The same is true for college students: if they want to cast a vote, why shouldn’t we be helping them express themselves through the most democratic form of free speech we have in this country?

Why should we care about American companies appeasing China?

Why should we care about American companies appeasing China?

17168253_MIn wake of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and escalating tensions between China and other powerful countries like the United States, you might have heard about controversies involving American corporations like Blizzard Entertainment, Apple, Disney, several U.S.-based airlines and others that are giving in to censorship pressure from China.

For context, the Chinese Communist Party, which has been ruling China for 70 years now, has severe restrictions on access to information and freedom of speech for its citizens. In our increasingly globalized society, plenty of Western media, products and celebrities are surging in popularity among the Chinese. The spread of Western media — particularly films and TV shows — has been particularly concerning for the CCP, since it would like to propagate rather different values and worldly perspectives than what is expressed through Western media.

These values and perspectives include democracy, freedom of speech/assembly, and even the fundamental bodily autonomy of individuals. The United Nations is being asked to investigate Chine for allegedly being involved in the murder of ethnic minorities for the purpose of harvesting their organs for transplants.

If China is vehemently against American ideals of freedom and democracy, then why are American companies supporting China by silencing dissenters and/or taking actions aimed to appease the CCP? Let’s investigate what’s going on:

The Film and Television Industry

American companies have a relatively long history of catering to their biggest market’s preferences and demands, but appeasing China is a relatively newer phenomenon that has gained traction since the 1990s and early 2000s. This is particularly important for the film and television industry, which has faced substantial profit reductions in recent years due to Internet-enabled pirating, steep competition from video streaming platforms, and declining consumer cinema attendance rates.

To expand their market share and boost revenue, film and television companies have begun altering certain content to ensure their movies and shows will be allowed to play in mainland China. In other words, as a 2018 article in Global Media and China put it: “to improve Hollywood movies’ success in China and to secure a profitable market share of China’s box office, Hollywood studios need to have a good relationship with China.”

Censorship practices implemented to appease China include:

  • Casting a white actor to portray an Asian villain (The Mandarin) in Ironman 3
  • Casting popular Chinese actors and actresses in blockbuster films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Meg
  • Removing any content that could be considered pornographic, such as Rose’s nude scene in Titanic
  • Casting a white actress (Tilda Swinton) to play a traditionally Tibetan character in Doctor Strange (in addition to depicting Stephan Strange’s spiritual awakening as occurring in Nepal, instead of the original comics’ location, Tibet)

The list of movies courting Chinese viewers by including or removing certain talent, settings and storylines could go on and on — but what about other American companies beyond the film and television industry?

Recent Censorship Controversies

As China analyst Matt Schrader said in an Associated Press article published on Oct. 10, “That’s the price you pay if you want to be in the market. You have to abide by demands to censor information: anything that paints the party or its history, or its top leaders, in an unflattering light, or disagrees with their preferred portrayal of China as a country.”

This scenario has played out for numerous American companies and organizations: Apple (removing VPN apps and police map apps in places like Hong Kong), the NBA (denouncing a pro-Hong Kong tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets), and Blizzard Entertainment (suspending a pro Hearthstone player and withholding his prize money after making a pro-Hong Kong statement in a live broadcast).

Why Should American Citizens Care?

These are just some of the many examples of American companies defending China and/or silencing people advocating places like Hong Kong and Tibet (not to mention the hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of Uighur Muslims imprisoned in “reeducation camps” in China).

This should be tremendously alarming for anyone who cares about free speech and democracy, American or not. Is appeasing China’s Communist Party through speech suppression and all-out silencing worth the erosion of democratic ideals around the world? Of course not — which is why we must stay vigilant, continue to bravely advocate for everyone’s rights to freedom of speech and critically evaluate the companies we purchase products and services from.

Boycotting these companies — as former customers around the world have begun to — may or may not make a difference when it comes to standing up to China or caving in to their censorship demands. But it’s crucial to remain informed about what is going on beyond our borders, especially when it involves free speech issues that are subtly starting to infiltrate our lives as well.

3 productive strategies for managing political differences in social situations

3 productive strategies for managing political differences in social situations

business conflict conceptInspired by this year’s symposium’s theme — Polarization and the Public Square — as well as the fact that Thanksgiving family dinners are just around the corner, this month’s post is centered on civil dialogue. It’s about the notion of giving family members and friends a time and place to vocalize their viewpoints without silencing or suppressing your own, potentially conflicting viewpoints.

The U.S. has been struggling with political polarization since its founding in the 1700s, but the 2016 Presidential Election was arguably a turning point toward deeper political division, this time within social groups as opposed to groups of people with similar political affiliations in opposition to each other.

Previously, political polarization was largely a macro concept, occurring in wider society and in mass media. Nowadays, political polarization shows up in our social media newsfeeds, family dining rooms and workplaces. So how can you articulate your perspective without clashing with someone else who disagrees? Alternatively, how can you engage in mindful listening practices when someone is saying something you completely disagree with?

To help you navigate political polarization in intimate social settings among friends, family or coworkers, here are three productive strategies for maintaining social relationships without smothering your own political beliefs in the process:

Genuinely Listen to Them

A lot of us claim that we listen to other people; but are you genuinely listening for the sake of understanding what they’re trying to say or are you listening while primarily waiting for an opportunity to step in with your counterarguments?

People can generally sense when their audience isn’t interested in what they have to say and/or the person listening is just waiting for their chance to jump in with new refutations rather than acknowledging and engaging with what they’re actually saying. To avoid contributing to perceptions that you’re not genuinely listening to someone, set aside your arguments for a few moments and focus 100 percent on what they’re saying.

You may disagree and want to argue right off the bat, but fight the urge if you ever want to understand where they’re coming from.

Agree to Disagree

Once you’ve listened to someone’s arguments and opinions, then what? In an era of deep political polarization like the one we’re currently in, it’s unlikely that either party will have a transformative, viewpoint-changing moment in the span of a single conversation.

With this in mind, try to approach conversations with family, friends and coworkers as a learning opportunity instead of a debate. If you go into a discussion with clash and a right/wrong mentality, then it’ll be a self-fulfilling prophecy and neither side will be better off after the conversation concludes.

Instead, understand that you’ll likely end up having to “agree to disagree” and focus on the respectful exchange of information as opposed to trying to “win” arguments (which will likely create more conflict than it resolves).

Focus on Commonalities

Finally, focus on beliefs you and the other person have in common. Perhaps you have radically different beliefs about the separation between church and state, but you can still agree on middle-of-the-aisle things relating to the economy or education policy.

Rather than seeking out fights with people with whom you know you’ll clash, engage in conversations when you can highlight shared beliefs, respectfully agree to disagree when beliefs diverge, and genuinely listen to the other person instead of listening just for the sake of building new arguments.

Do new cigarette advertising guidelines violate the First Amendment?

Do new cigarette advertising guidelines violate the First Amendment?

34581221 - hand holding an electronic cigarette over a dark backgroundRecently, the FDA proposed new, more graphic warning labels for cigarette boxes. The last major change to warning labels for tobacco products occurred 35 years ago and the new labels would take up half the cigarette box to warn potential users of the dangers of smoking, such as lung cancer, heart disease, impotence, and eyesight problems, to name a few.

As expected, tobacco companies are not happy with the latest FDA proposal. The last time the FDA tried changing warning labels to include photos of cadavers and diseased lungs in 2012, the industry fought back in court and won on the basis of free speech.

But do warning labels and restrictive advertising guidelines predicated on public health actually violate these companies’ First Amendment rights? Let’s explore this issue further:

Tobacco Industry vs. the FDA

There has always existed a contentious relationship between the FDA and tobacco industry, whether that involved advertising guidelines potentially infringing on rights related to commercial speech or health claims of new tobacco products like e-cigarettes and vape juice. Throughout the past few decades, the federal government and several state governments have filed lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers on the basis of false advertising claims (e.g., wealth, fame, power symbols attached to tobacco mascots) and targeting youth (such as the ongoing Juul scandal).

Advertising is inherently intertwined with the First Amendment as a form of commercial speech, and warning labels intended to deter people from smoking can be bad for business. While adults should arguably be free to make their own life choices with what they do or do not consume, the inception and expansion of digital advertising has considerably complicated matters for both tobacco companies and the FDA.

Tobacco Companies Lobbying Against New Labels

Tobacco companies are back in court for the latest battle over warning labels on their products. For instance, the manufacturer of Camel and Newport cigarettes says it supports public awareness campaigns, but it claims that “the manner in which those messages are delivered to the public cannot run afoul of the First Amendment.”

Some legal analysts have argued in favor of banning tobacco advertising altogether, but this could lead to a slippery slope scenario in which many commercial products or services deemed unfavorable by a majority of the public could be shut out as well. The latest legal battle between the FDA and tobacco companies likely won’t be resolved for many months or years, but in the meantime: what do you think about the relationship between commercial free speech rights and public health? How can the government balance the autonomy of adults to make their own consumption choices without ignoring the potential benefits of deterring the public from health-harming, addictive habits like smoking?